Western eyes have drawn inspiration from “exotic” Asian images since the seventeenth century. With the opening of “China: Through the Looking Glass” at the Met, fashion historians—and filmmaker Wong Kar Wai, the exhibition’s artistic director—turn the mirror around.
One of the boy emperor’s robes—a splendid fragment of a lost world, on special loan from Beijing’s Palace Museum—greets visitors to “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a spectacular exhibition curated and organized by Andrew Bolton and opening this month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, with production design by Nathan Crowley. Two years in the making, installed both in the Costume Center and within the grand backdrop of the museum’s Chinese Galleries—a first for contemporary fashion—the show juxtaposes masterpieces of Chinese art and rare artifacts with works by (mostly) Western designers, inspired by the idea of China but emerging from the wilder shores of the imagination.
There’s a visceral pleasure in discovering, in the same gallery, a cobalt dragon wriggling across the swelling forms of both an exquisite fifteenth-century Ming storage jar and a strapless blue-and-white silk-satin evening dress by Roberto Cavalli. “At the Met, we can put modern art into a 5,000-year context,” says Maxwell K. Hearn, head of the museum’s Department of Asian Art, which collaborated with Bolton and the Costume Institute on the show, underwritten by Yahoo. “That’s one of the thrills for me.”
On view near Pu Yi’s robe, for example, is a stunning evening gown in yellow silk satin adorned with sequins, created by Tom Ford during his final season at Yves Saint Laurent (autumn-winter 2004). An Imperial Manchu dragon robe inspired the gown’s sumptuous embroidery, while its figure-hugging form is reminiscent of the qipao (a.k.a. cheongsam), the narrow, side-closing sheath associated with the cinematic glamour of Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s. And for Ford, these images were also filtered through films: Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987), based upon Pu Yi’s memoirs, and In the Mood for Love (2000), by Wong Kar Wai, artistic director of the current exhibition (where clips from these and other films will be screening). That film’s mesmerizingly beautiful, melancholy heroine (played by Maggie Cheung) repeatedly descends a narrow staircase in her 1960s Hong Kong boardinghouse in slow motion, wearing an ever-changing series of vividly colored cheongsams. “I watched that film over and over again,” Ford confides.
China’s influence on Western fashion can be traced all the way back to the silk trade between Asia and the Roman Empire, though the earliest European garment on view here—a bodice with pagodas woven into its pink silk brocade—dates from the eighteenth-century French craze for chinoiserie, something Karl Lagerfeld once passionately collected. “What I most loved were antique Chinese vases ‘mounted’ in France,” the designer says—glorious cultural hybrids, like many of his designs for Chanel. On display at the Met is his slinky, side-slit silk-organza evening ensemble in cinnabar, stitched with golden vistas of aristocrats at leisure in the rocky gardens of a far-off summer palace.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, Paul Poiret—“a great postmodernist of his day,” according to Bolton—“would mix Chinese, Japanese, and Egyptian influences all in one garment.” Later designers followed suit.
Peonies and peach blossoms bloomed luxuriantly on embroidered silk shawls; Foo dogs adorned minaudières; pagodas influenced the shapes of sleeves, shoulders, and entire multitiered evening dresses. The dragon robe evolved into a chic, if somewhat louche, alternative to the dressing gown. And the qipao, popularized by elegant society figures such as Mme Wellington Koo (wife of the Chinese ambassador in Paris and London) and the early film star Anna May Wong, became an icon of sleek modernity.
A body-skimming evening dress with a daring sheer back by Jean Paul Gaultier (part of a collection that combined “classical Spanish clothing, like toreador jackets, with dresses of Chinese inspiration,” the designer says) might have been made for Wong, who in Hollywood films of the 1920s and 1930s embodied a mythical Orient’s beauty, danger, and mystery.
While the Met’s show addresses the racial stereotypes—“the lotus blossom, the dragon lady,” Bolton says—that circumscribed Wong’s career (and eventually made her decamp for Europe), a greater aim, he explains, is to recast Orientalism in a more positive light as “an exchange of ideas and an honored source of influence.”
After all, Yves Saint Laurent’s notorious “Chinese and Opium” collection (autumn-winter 1977 haute couture) may have owed something to the wily proprietress of a gambling den in director Josef von Sternberg’s The Shanghai Gesture (1941). Yet his fever dream of embroidered black silk-velvet jackets, conical satin hats, purple silk-satin pants, and gold lamé matelassé coats with pagoda shoulders, trimmed in fox fur, has been a landmark in fashion ever since. His imperial concubines, thus arrayed, may have little to do with, say, John Galliano’s fantastical, voluminously layered ensembles for Christian Dior’s spring 2003 haute couture collection—inspired by his backstage visit to the Peking Opera—or Vivienne Tam’s “Mao Suit,” its black-and-white jacquard printed with images of the chairman and fit for a Pop princess. But rooted in China’s vast and dramatic history, they all stretch up into empyrean realms of fancy and invention.